One of Houston’s most prominent restaurants groups is ready to crack open its new upscale seafood restaurant. Pappas Restaurant is ready to unveil Little’s Oyster Bar, its new concept in the former Little Pappas Seafood space on Shepherd Drive. Reservations will go live beginning May 15 for a May 17 opening.
The new name previews the comprehensive changes to the space’s design, along with an all-new food menu and beverage offerings. While the vintage exterior signage remains intact, Houstonians with memories of coming to the restaurant for fried seafood platters and discounted Gulf oysters will instead find that the company has created its first all-new fine dining concept since Pappas Bros. Steakhouse opened on Westheimer more than 25 years ago.
“Honestly, the profitability of the restaurant, we knew the neighborhood wanted something different,” Pappas director of marketing Christina Pappas tells CultureMap. “It was our opportunity to do something very chef driven in a great part of town, on a great block, and give it something fresh.”
That something fresh starts from the moment people walk through the door. The building’s Art Deco-inspired exterior signage now previews the interior design. A comprehensive set of renovations features an expanded bar, all new lighting, and changes to every plate, glass, and piece of silverware. It seats 80 people inside and 50 on a patio that features a retractable roof.
“It’s a retro Hollywood vibe with caviar and champagne. It’s fun. We don’t want to be stuffy,” Pappas says. Later, she adds, “A lot of love went in here. If we were going to do it, we were going to do it right. The design team did it all in-house, and they did a really fantastic job.”
As Christina Pappas notes, the company is aware that Little’s is opening at a time when seafood restaurants seem to be one of the city’s hottest food trends. Recent arrivals include both Navy Blue, Aaron Bludorn’s restaurant in Rice Village, and Gatsby’s Seafood. More are coming soon, including Dallas-based oyster bar Hudson House; Balboa Surf Club, a California-inspired concept from the owners of il Bracco; Dune Road, Ben Berg’s New England-style seafood restaurant; and Austin favorite Clark’s, an oyster bar that will only be about a mile away from Little’s along the same stretch of West Alabama St.
“Clark’s is great. They do a wonderful job, but how do we differentiate? We all seemed to have the idea that there was a hole in this neighborhood for an oyster bar,” she says. “We don’t want to be a replica of the same thing four blocks away. We can get wine and spirits that no one else can get, so why don’t we bring the food that comes with it? We looked for awhile to find someone who understood seafood. How seafood tastes and how to manipulate it.”
Ultimately, they found their man in executive chef Jason Ryczek. Granting that title to anyone is rare for a restaurant group where the family name comes first, but Ryczek brings an impressive resume to the role, including working as the executive chef at San Francisco seafood restaurant Farallon and as the co-owner and founding chef of Alley & Vine in Alameda. The chef tells CultureMap he initially wanted to consult on the restaurant’s opening but decided the opportunity justified moving to Houston and signing on with Pappas full time.
“What really sold me is the level of perfection in everything they do from top to bottom in all of their restaurants,” he says. “We try to get close at a lot of the restaurants I’ve been in in California to have that power behind us as chefs.”
When it came to developing the menu, Ryczek worked with Pappas’ corporate R&D team to adapt his style to meet Houstonians’ expectations. That meant bigger portions than he’s used to serving — “if someone has eight to 10 ounces of protein, it’s through the course of 10 different dishes on a tasting menu,” he says with a laugh about his typical approach — but also required the Pappas team to reconsider some of its practices.
“It became a collaboration where my outside input was to be there to question something that’s always been Pappas,” he says. “Where I say, ‘that sounds great, but don’t you think that belongs at Pappadeaux? Or maybe we should run that at the steakhouse.’ Then we talk about it until it gets to that next plane where it is different.”
Meals at Little’s will start with selections from the raw bar, which include both Gulf Coast and East Coast oysters along with crab Louie, shrimp cocktail, and lobster. Ryczek’s passion for caviar is reflected in the menu’s three varieties of sturgeon caviar — house, Kaluga, and Osetra — including six sturgeon the chef personally harvested at the California Caviar Company.
From there, diners will move on to cold appetizers and hot appetizers. Cold plates include big eye tuna crudo with watermelon and a Caesar salad riff with burrata and boquerones. Hot appetizers feature lobster gnocchi, baked oysters, and an Israeli-inspired grilled octopus dish with zhug and smashed potatoes. Entrees will be served steakhouse-style, i.e., as stand alone proteins — options include grouper, red fish, salmon, and “chicken fried snapper” — with a la carte sides such as charred carrots, grits, and french fries. Each piece of fish comes in a hearty 10-12 ounce portion that’s designed to be split (or not). Some of the fish comes from Pappas's boats, while others is sourced from sustainable fisheries around the world.
Ultimately, it’s a more compact menu than diners would typically find at a Pappas restaurant. The focus is on seasonality and serving the best ingredients that Pappas’ massive buying power allows it to source. Ultimately, diners have the choice to sample broadly by sharing multiple dishes or going down a more traditional appetizers and entrees route.
“What it comes down to is, it’s up to you. That’s what I’m trying to present the guests with,” Ryczek says. “Do you want one course, two courses, ten courses? We can do it. Do you want your own plate? Shared plates? Do you want to try as many things as possible? Did you come in here already knowing I want this kind of dish and this kind of dish?”
Robert Smith, Pappas Restaurants fine spirits and expanding concepts wine director has curated the Little's wine list with selections that pair well with its food. Both the more than 20 by-the-glass selections and an extensive bottle list focus on seafood-friendly whites, lighter reds, and sparkling wines — especially champagne. Bar manager Oliver Bondswell has contributed a tidy cocktail menu of 11 house cocktails, many of which utilize aperitivo spirits that also pair well with seafood.
As for those other seafood restaurants, Ryczek provides a succinct analysis of where he sees Little’s fitting in. From the chef’s perspective, it’s not about competing head-to-head as much as it is about presenting a distinct offering that lures diners on its own merits.
“I don’t want to do anything like those other restaurants,” he says. “Let Navy take the high end, front of the house, Daniel Boulud route. Let Clark’s be the place you can get a burger and oysters. Let Uchi be shared plates that lean on Japanese. Let me do shared plates that lean on Gulf.
“I want [Little’s] to be nice with a comfort and smile to it that feels like a Pappas restaurant and also plays well with others. We’re our own thing.”
Little's will be open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday beginning at 5 pm.